A despondent Italian side limps into Twickenham on the back of a sound beating in Rome, with virtually no chance of victory against hosts England. It’s been an abysmal last 12 months for the Azzurri, with a solitary victory over a disinterested Samoan side their only notch in the win column. Their last meeting with England went horribly wrong, a pasting to the tune of 41 points. To make matters worse, they’ll have to front up without two of their best players, as both Alessandro Zanni and Michele Campagnaro have fallen out with knee injuries. It couldn’t get much worse for poor Jacques Brunel.
That said, his choices to fill the gaps appear desperate at best. Andrea Masi moves up to the midfield in place of Campagnaro, with Luke McLean moving to his favoured fullback and Giovanbattista Venditti recalled on the vacant wing. Venditti wears no11 but will likely line up on the right, with Leonardo Sarto more comfortable on the left. Tommaso Allan will again watch from the sidelines, despite impressing in his Dublin cameo, with Kelly Haimona instead given the nod at no10 once more. Uncapped Zebre midfielder Giulio Bisegni takes Venditti’s spot on the bench.
On the surface adding more than 200 caps of experience to the forward pack sounds like a good thing. Unfortunately the two men providing it are well past their best at this level. Marco Bortolami and Mauro Bergamasco are hall-of-fame level contributors to Italian rugby, but keeping up with the pace of a test match against England is just a step beyond their capabilities. Why Bortolami has replaced Joshua Furno, arguably Italy’s best forward against Ireland, is a complete mystery.
Similarly discarding reserve flanker Marco Barbini, who made his debut as a reserve last week, in favour of Samuela Vunisa makes little sense. What has Vunisa done in a week? Replacing Matías Agüero with Alberto de Marchi is probably the correct call, but neither have much form to speak of. That last bit could be applied to most of the side, but Agüero was particularly dismal in Rome, in all facets of play.
England, for once, are exactly the same as they lined up in Cardiff. No injuries, no tinkering, nobody bumped out of position. If there is a complaint it’s that there is still no proper second row substitute on the bench, but that’s about it. It’s a refreshing change, but doesn’t leave much excitement for the media. Will Tom Croft or Danny Cipriani see the field this week? Every other question appears to be answered.
Sadly for Italy this is not a story book lesson, and there is no silver lining. They are en route to another thrashing, one that could easily match or even exceed last year’s result, with only individual pride standing in the way of a record defeat. Sergio Parisse looks tired and frustrated, and can you blame him? This game will not go well for Italy. England’s cohesion surprised Wales and will only be better this week. Without Campagnaro the Azzurri have very little to offer on attack. Stuart Lancaster will be passing out cups and saucers by halftime as England stroll to a conservative 30 point victory over a toothless Italy.
ENGLAND vs ITALY
Saturday, February 14, 14:30 GMT, London
Referee: John Lacey (IRFU)
Assistants: Pascal Gaüzère (FFR) & Mike Fraser (NZRU)
TMO: George Ayoub (ARU)